Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Curious Case of Cooks Source and Poor Reputation Management

The Internet set to flames this past Thursday when New England based Cooks Source Magazine became the center of a copyright infringement and plagiarism controversy with blogger, Monica Gaudio. It's become an epic tale of rightful justice and poor reputation management under crisis.

After Gaudio discovered that the magazine had published a piece she had written about apple pie without her permission, she contacted the publication requesting an apology as well as a $130 (10 cents per word for her 1300 word article) donation to the Columbia School of Journalism.

Enter the now infamous editor Judith Griggs and her response to Gaudio:

But honestly Monica, the web is considered "public domain" and you should be happy we just didn't "lift" your whole article and put someone else's name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. If you took offence and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. Now it will work well for your portfolio. For that reason, I have a bit of a difficult time with your requests for monetary gain, albeit for such a fine (and very wealthy!) institution. We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me! I never charge young writers for advice or rewriting poorly written pieces, and have many who write for me... ALWAYS for free!"

Following the Nov. 4 Internet explosion upon the Facebook page of Cooks Source Magazine, Griggs allegedly wrote:

"Hi Folks!
Well, here I am with egg on my face! I did apologise to Monica via email, but aparently it wasnt enough for her. To all of you, thank you for your interest in Cooks Source and Again, to Monica, I am sorry -- my bad!You did find a way to get your "pound of flesh..." we used to have 110 "friends," we now have 1,870... wow!
Best to all, Judith"

And in what continues to reflect the lame duck communications of Cooks Source Magazine, the publication has released a statement on their website. The 862 word apology mostly focuses on the Magazine's own personal "victimization." Due to its length, I've highlighted two select portions of the statement relevant to this entry. You can read the full apology here.

"We have cancelled our Facebook page on Thursday, November 4th, 2010 at 6:00PM. It has since been since been hacked by unknown parties and now someone else unknown to us has control of it. Their inclusion of Cooks Source issues and photos is used without our knowledge or consent. Please know that none of the statements made by either Cooks Source or Judith Griggs were made by either our staff or her...

...Last month an article, “American as Apple Pie -- Isn’t,” was placed in error in Cooks Source, without the approval of the writer, Monica Gaudio. We sincerely wish to apologize to her for this error, it was an oversight of a small, overworked staff."

And thus, a simple analysis while highlighting a few very simple lessons to take away from this mishap. The first applies to anyone in the communications field:

Rule #1 (And the Golden Rule I might add): Don't plagiarize and know your copyright laws. As a business entity, constantly work to ensure high standards of ethical and legal business practices among all employees. Place additional emphasis on teaching proper decision making scenarios to apply their legal knowledge in. Apparently Cooks Source Magazine couldn't seem to grasp the simple logic of copyright law and it cost them.

Next, is the issue of social engagement with your publics.

Rule #2: Have a set policy for all employees when handling internal and external communications. Never assume emails are private. Once the information you publish is "sent," it's out there and anything can happen with that content. I think the Steve Jobs v. Chelsea Kate Isaacs incident gives some additional background into that principle.

Rule #3 (Also making Rule #2 obsolete): Be professional at all times when conducting all communications with your publics. This is where Griggs truly fails. Rather than acknowledging her mistake and diffusing the situation, she chooses to take a highly demeaning standpoint towards Monica. In her editorializing, Griggs also reveals her huge lack of understanding copyright infringement. The two factors, arrogance and ignorance, would only add fuel to the fire. As a rule of thumb, avoid writing aggressive, defensive responses.

Now what do you do when a reputation management crisis hits?

Rule # 4: Silence is not golden. Under crisis, engage your audience and publics. An important strategy to this rule would be to pre-develop protocol and train key communicators on how to actively and positively combat negative engagement online. Once the Cooks Source blaze took off, nothing "official" would be heard from Cooks Source Magazine for six days. Six days is a long time in the realm of the Internet. Aside from the Facebook status update from Griggs, the magazine would not respond to any media inquiry, including my own on behalf of the Society of Professional Journalists.

In a recent article on integrated marketing communications, I highlighted a very dangerous aspect that some "brands without efficient response to this form of dialog within the past year have in turn suffered drastically negative exposure at the hands of consumer social media." The same holds true for Cooks Source Magazine. Not responding only lead to further suspicion across the media and Internet.

Timeliness is everything.

Much like the Tiger Woods affair scandal, Cooks Source Magazine's withdrawal from public communication only lead to further investigations like that of journalist/blogger Ed Champion, revealing that the publication had repeatedly used copyrighted material from other outlets and personalities such as NPR, Paula Dean and the Food Network.

Rule # 5: Don't Editorialize. Be short and factual. I already mentioned this in Rule #2 but it honestly needs it's own rule. If your company or organization finds itself in an a difficult situation, it's best to know when to disengage from editorializing and instead focus on straight-forward statements.

Cooks Source not only takes on a role of personal victimization, but it also tries to assume an authoritative stance in the "official" statement. Cooks Source takes to condemning the "disreputable" internet for attacking them while "protecting" the advertisers of Cooks Source, the small businesses and farms in area that rely on Cooks Source and even, Gaudio? (From the Cooks Source Statement: The misuse of Facebook discussed above also applies to Ms. Gaudio: she did what she felt was the right thing, and doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment, either.)

Unless something is missing here, no mass congregation of the Internet has taken to attacking Gaudio. Of course, taking Cooks Source's above rationale into perspective, the running Facebook meme "But honestly Monica, (insert something ridiculous about Cooks Source)" might be misunderstood as an attack on the blogger rather than the obvious attack on Judith Griggs.

Further editorializing while inadvertently trying to draw attention elsewhere, the statement goes on to back-hand Facebook when referencing their corporate number.

"Interestingly, this phone number and any other contact info is not listed on the Facebook site, and has taken four people a number of days to track down."
(Note: It took one me less than two minutes to find the same contact numbers via Google search...)

Prior to that comment, the publication identifies their Facebook page being "hacked" and "someone else unknown to us has control of it." Aside from the Griggs Facebook quote above (predating the 6 p.m. cancellation on that date), no such hacking has truly taken place. This further indicates that Cooks Source is either ignorant of how the Internet, Facebook and social media works, or they could just be lying.

If the magazine had merely published strait forward facts, none of these assumptions would be in question. This brings us to the last rule.

Rule #6: Just tell the truth. By the time readers finally arrive at the "apology" segment of the statement, Cooks Source disclaims that the article by Monica was "placed in error" due to the "oversight of a small, overworked staff." Not only is this editorializing, it's makes excuses and takes a lack of responsibility. This case is hardly an "oversight" if reflecting the number of additional infringement cases that have surfaced as a result.

The Magazine's statement that their Facebook account was "hacked" with the inclusion of Cooks Source issues and photos without their knowledge or consent is also missing a few key points in their logic. A closer look at any one of the aforementioned issues and photos will reveal Facebook publication dates going back months prior to any alleged hacking.

The curious case of Cooks Source Magazine is definitely a paradigm shift in a positive direction for copyright protection on the "world wild web" and an encompassing example of what not to do when it comes to crisis communications.

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